Inside Enrollment Management: Confessions of a Retention Consultant, Really!

Timothy Culver

Vice President, Consulting Services

July 30, 2010

Tim CulverMy clients on campuses sometimes ask, “Tim, before you joined Noel-Levitz and when you were still in our shoes, employed by a campus, what are some things you didn’t do right?” Wow! There are many things I didn’t do right or could have done better. I had the right goal, to improve fall-to-spring and fall-to-fall retention rates, but often I didn’t have the right strategies (art and science) in place. In this article I’d like to continue this conversation with you and discuss how you can use both art and science to strengthen your retention approaches, especially with an eye toward improving your first-year student assessment and early-alert systems as students transition to campus and continue to their second term and second year.

Recently when I was on a campus, my contact, let’s call her Pat, asked me, “Tim, is what we’re doing with our first-year assessment and early-alert system really early enough and are we missing opportunities to better understand our students? Isn’t it too late by mid-term for many students? Couldn’t we start to know the issues that are putting our students at risk earlier than we do?”

I knew at that moment that this was yet another opportunity for me to confess that I didn’t do first-year assessments or early-alerts very well, either, when I was a retention director. Thankfully, though, ten years later, I have since gained extensive experience that I can now use to make early alert really early.

I continued the conversation with Pat and asked her, “Didn’t you know or at least could you have known at the time of admission or shortly thereafter which students were less likely to persist? She thought about it and replied, “I guess if I would have done more analysis I could have known my students’ needs before they even started classes.” I smiled, she smiled, and we began planning how she could do this. I shared with her that the combination of what you know about the student at the time of admission and what the student might tell you during new student orientation and during their first year provides a powerful set of advising tools for helping students transition and persist. Mind you I had the art back in my early years but I didn’t have the science.

So if Pat had the ability to know earlier, why did she (and why did I—and why do so many other campuses?) still wait for students to miss class, or wait for academic challenges or social integration issues to surface, rather than take a more proactive approach? Wouldn’t it be better if we could utilize data from our existing student information systems to assist us with gaining knowledge about our students before they fail? When I was a director of student success I didn’t do this very well, but now I can clearly see that I missed a golden opportunity. I believe you, too, have those data already at your fingertips and could predict at the time of admission or shortly thereafter which students are less likely to persist to the second term and to progress into their second year.

What I’ve learned from experience and how my conversation with Pat continued

What I’ve learned from experience is that, to be really early, it’s best to begin by analyzing four types of data which can be predictive of retention, which you already collect during the new student enrollment process. These four types of data can initially be categorized as: 1) geographical, 2) financial, 3) academic, and 4) behavioral. This includes data drawn from the application for admission, the financial aid process, and from the admissions process overall. By combining these data with what students self-report, you can develop a truly proactive approach. (Of course, I’ve simplified the steps that are actually involved here—but this really is the framework I’ve learned to trust.)

Pat and I continued our conversation. She asked, “How and what type of self-reported data should I collect?”

To answer this question, we first talked about how and when to go about assessing students’ needs. Reflecting back to when I was a director of retention, I described the opportunities I missed during the summer to find out more information about my students’ readiness to meet the expectations of being a student in and out of the classroom. Sure, I had placement test scores and other academic information but my focus was on getting them used to the campus, getting them advised and registered, and helping them get all their needs met before classes started. I think I should have also been asking what they need to be successful in and out of the classroom. If I were a student success director today, I’d begin my first-year assessment cycle during the summer before they begin classes and continue it throughout the students’ first year and into the second year as they become rising sophomores.

To find out what students need to be successful, I would want to know if my students are prepared to cope with the academic, social, financial, and wellness issues they will face as college students. I wouldn’t base it on just placement test scores or major alone. Our National Freshman Attitudes Reports, published annually, clearly show that 95 percent of new students intend to graduate but what we know is that depending upon school type it usually averages around 40 percent. With this gap being so large, it makes me believe even more that we should get started earlier and collect more in-depth data as students transition which will help us to better understand our students.

Staying in line with this approach I’d also be asking students what they need as they transition into their second term and on to their second year. I’d be focusing more on midstream concerns and needs, thus providing an avenue for goal-setting. I would assess satisfaction with their campus experience and help advisors bring increased focus to the relationship between academics and careers. These are pivotal times in a student’s transition that are often left untouched.

The self-reported data students would provide prior to the beginning of classes and as they continue progressing to the second year combined with the predictive data that already exists in your student information system will benefit you in many ways. First, these data will give you a data-informed approach to formalize your outreach to the incoming class, thus making your advisors more effective and efficient with the time they have to serve students. Second, you will see lower cohort default rates since we know there is a direct correlation between retention and loan repayment. Third, you could use this approach to lower the number of students placed on probation at the end of their first term. You will be able to take action and be proactive before academic issues become too overwhelming. Fourth, you will quickly develop a persister’s profile which will help you understand who is staying and who is leaving. Lastly, your persistence, progression, retention and graduation rates will improve.

Pat’s last question

As I concluded my conversation with Pat, she asked one final question, “Tim, what else can we do?” The answer isn’t that complicated. If we as student success professionals can continue to remember why it is we do what we do (the art) then we will be successful.

In response to Pat’s last question, I reflected on one of my former students I’ll call Todd. He came to the Student Success Center where I used to work. It was during the summer before classes started, and he had multiple factors which put him “at risk.” He told me he wanted to be a teacher. He was dyslexic, had processing problems when he read, and was developmental in two of three areas. And, by the way, he was the son of a prominent campus leader. My president asked me to “watch after him” and “make sure he graduates.” No pressure!

Todd and I got to work that summer and began to develop a plan for him that addressed his strengths and his opportunities. It helped that Todd was a willing participant most of the time. Each semester he had a learning plan and a set of responsibilities which he would help to develop. He progressed during his first year and, during his second year, decided he wanted to become an orientation leader to return some of what he had been given. Four years later, after becoming a math tutor, a student leader, and a trusted student employee, Todd graduated.

Don’t forget why you do what you do! We can’t forget about the art that goes along with the science. The combination of art and science will make your early alerts early… really!

About the Author

Dr. Tim Culver leads the retention consulting services of Ruffalo Noel Levitz, offering counsel to help institutions develop, implement, and evaluate plans for improving enrollment, student success, persistence, retention, and degree completion rates. He has...

Read more about Timothy's experience and expertise

Reach Timothy by e-mail at Tim.Culver@RuffaloNL.com.

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